The Square — starring Elisabeth Moss, Claes Bang, and Dominic West (in theaters now) — skewers the art world and society. It also won and this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and will be setting its sights on the best foreign language category, representing Sweden, at this year’s Oscars. We chatted with director Ruben Östlund when he was in New York City for NYFF about life after (the magnificent) Force Majeure and what it’s like when Hollywood comes calling.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Doing back-to-back interviews like you are doing today seems just weird enough and ripe for satire that I wonder if it will end up in a future movie of yours.
RUBEN ÖSTLUND: I’ve actually thought about that before — I was thinking of doing something like that right before I made Force Majeure. I think there’s so many things to investigate in the ritual of interviewer and subject. One of my favorite clips on YouTube is about a cab driver that mistakenly ends up being interviewed in a live broadcast on the BBC. The journalist believes he’s an expert on internet rights and he starts to play around. There’s not one word that makes any sense at all! It’s so funny. So much about live television is that everyone is so scared of creating chaos.
The Square features chaos too — starting with the protagonist getting his wallet stolen in a scam on the street. Did I hear that’s something that actually happened to you?
It’s a combination really. I was on my way to my office in Sweden and there were a lot of people on the street. We heard a woman yelling, “Help!” Help is such a fantastic word because it’s pointing for everyone but at the same time pointing at me personally, you know? Anyway, this woman is running at us and she looks hysterical and like in the movie she throws herself to the guy next to me and is saying, “You have to help me, he’s going to kill me.” I was forced into playing the hero. I wasn’t robbed but what I liked about it was this guy next to me broke the bystander effect. He grabbed my arm and was like, you and me, let’s create a group. I was so proud afterward! [Laughs] The film is so much about the social contract and what is the expectations of our roles and how we should behave. If someone is asking you for help and you get robbed? It’s humiliating. I combined that story with something that happened to a friend who did actually track down her stolen cell phone.
It seems like all your movies really like to look at that gray area between what our instincts tell us what to do versus what society does.
Yes, I really like to look at human beings in this way. And to look at me that way, too. My behavior is very dependent on what is going on around me. It’s easy for me to identify with doing the wrong thing.
When Force Majeure wasn’t nominated — a travesty! — for an Oscar you made a really funny video where you pretend to freak out. I think a lot of people didn’t know if it was real or not.
Well, we were really disappointed, of course. We thought: What should we do now? Then we realized we could do something fun with it. We recorded me screaming and crying outside the frame later.
But hey, maybe that video will make it possible for us to be nominated this time! The anglo saxon film industry is obsessed with Cinderella stories [Laughs].
Has Hollywood come calling for you to start directing big studio films?
Yes. I was a little bit scared of doing something in English before The Square but I think it worked out quite well. But I also think it’s important to keep control of production. I’ve produced all my movies with my own production company. I’ve had so many friends go to the U.S. and get caught up in… the machine, yes. Then they come back five years later and they still haven’t done anything. What I would love is to be able to use more of the American actors. There are so many actors here that have super potential that is not being used one hundred percent.
Who is on your wish list?
Michael Cera. Totally. I think Michael Cera I could do something with him that’s not been done yet. He’s number one.
I remember hearing about your proposed idea for last year’s Passengers — which sounded super dark and crazy.
Yes. I met with the head of production at Sony and everything and told him what I wanted to do. Basically I thought of it as a horror movie. And the main guy should have his family on board in the sleeping pods. That makes the dilemma of the film so much stronger: what do you need to really existentially survive? You need someone next to you. So he can’t wake up his kids or his wife because he doesn’t want them to only live life on a spaceship. So he has to wake up another woman. I love this idea of [mimes swiping].
Yes. Swiping, like, “This one is hot!” But come on — he falls in love with her? No. I think it would be much more about physical attraction.
What is your next film about?
It’s called Triangle of Sadness. It’s when you have that wrinkle between your eyebrows. In Sweden it’s called “trouble wrinkles” — when you have a lot of trouble in your life, you get the sadness here but there’s good news because you can fix that in 15 minutes with Botox. [Laughs] My wife, she’s a fashion photographer and she has been telling me so many funny stories over the years about the beauty industry and the fashion industry. I have been really quite interested in how beauty is a value that you can’t transform into economics. If you don’t have an education or money, you till you can travel in society [with beauty]. So this story is about a male model. And he’s getting bald. The male model has been the face for Hugo Boss and at the same time as the hair is getting thinner and not growing anymore. In order to rebrand him, they suggest he date a famous girlfriend to book more jobs. And she is a lesbian! So it will really be about the economic system and how every single individual worries about becoming their own brand.